How to write a novel in 100 days - John Coyne.doc

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How to write a novel in 100 days or less









How many times have you finished reading a novel and said, “I could have written that book.” You know what? You’re right. All of us, I believe, carry at least one novel around in our heads or our hearts. Novelist Toni Morrison put it this way: “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
     Writing a book is no easy task. Nevertheless, every day another book is published.
     In 1996, according to Books in Print, 1.3 million book titles were in print. The number of books published in 1996 alone was 140,000 in the United States. So, why not you?

What you need
I believe that if you can write a simple English sentence (after all, that’s what Ernest Hemingway wrote), are alert to the world around you, and want to write a salable novel — really want to, not just kind of want to — then you can do it. I don’t think anybody ever became a writer by going to a workshop, reading a book, or even reading this article. Writing comes from something internal in a writer. However, this article will save you time, point you in the right direction, and help you write a novel in 100 days or less.

It works. I’ve done it myself several times.
     I know what it means to squeeze in an hour or two a day (or night) of writing. It is not easy to write a novel, not when you have a full time job, family, and responsibilities, but it can be done. Most writers, in fact, have had to carry on two lives while they wrote their novel. But once you sell your first book, than maybe you’ll be in the position to quit your day job and devote the rest of your life to writing full time.

Great writers have done it
Yes, you have a job. Yes, you have a family. Neither have stopped great writers in the past. The poet Wallace Stevens was a vice president of an insurance company and an expert on the bond market. The young T.S. Eliot was a banker. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Robert Frost was a poultry farmer. Hart Crane packed candy in his father’s warehouse, and later wrote advertising copy. Stephen Crane was a war correspondent. Marianne Moore worked at the New York Public Library. James Dickey worked for an advertising agency. Archibald MacLeish was Director of the Office of Facts and Figures during World War II.

Drawing from pure emotion
What makes a writer? Perhaps it is a single incident — one that happens early in life and shapes the writer’s sense of wonder and self-awareness.
    Take the case of José Saramago, the first Portuguese-language writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The son of a peasant father and an illiterate mother, brought up in a home with no books, he took almost 40 years to go from metalworker to civil servant to editor in a publishing house to newspaper editor. He was 60 before he earned recognition at home and abroad with Baltasar and Blimunda.
      As a child, he spent vacations with his grandparents in a village called Azinhaga. When his grandfather suffered a stroke and was to be taken to Lisbon for treatment, Saramago recalls, "He went into the yard of his house, where there were a few trees, fig trees, olive trees. And he went one by one, embracing the trees and crying, saying good-bye to them because he knew he would not return. To see this, to live this, if that doesn’t mark you for the rest of your life," Saramago says, "you have no feeling."
     Begin with that pure emotion. Turn it into prose.

Let us begin
Sinclair Lewis was invited to talk to some students about the writer’s craft. He stood at the head of the class and asked, “How many of you here are really serious about being writers?” A sea of hands shot up. Lewis then asked, “Well, why aren't you all home writing?” And with that he walked out of the room.
     So now it is time for you to be writing.
     What follows is your daily log — each day may have words of encouragement, advice, or wisdom or a task for you to do to get your book written. It is what you need to do each day for the next hundred days to write your novel.





Day 1

The great New Yorker editor and writer, E.B. White, said when accepting the National Medal for Literature, “A writer’s courage can easily fail him . . . I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”
     On this your first day of writing your novel, make a promise to yourself that you are going to do it. This is critical. Without that commitment, you may as well save your pencils and paper. It isn’t going to happen. Remember, write as often as you can. That’s what writers do — they write.


Day 2

Carve out specific time to write. This is important because over the course of writing a novel, you’ll get discouraged, bored, angry, or otherwise fed up, and when you start feeling that way, you’ll need clearly defined patterns to keep yourself working.
     On occasion you may have to shift your writing times to deal with other demands in your life, but fight to keep them as regular as you can.
     What do I mean by specific times?
     Two hours each morning and each evening, and one eight-hour day every weekend, for example. Decide how much time you will spend writing each week, and then do it. Many would-be novelists defeat themselves because they set a schedule but then don’t stick to it. Be realistic in the time you plan, and then live by it.

Day 3

In the first week, decide upon the story you are going to write. You might not work out every detail, but today you are going to begin the process. You are not going to procrastinate — procrastination is your enemy. Matisse advised his students, “If you want to be a painter, cut out your tongue.” The time has come to stop merely talking about writing your novel. Get started planning it now.

Day 4

What kind of novel appeals to you? What really gets your juices flowing? Is it a good murder mystery, science fiction, a thriller, romance, general fiction?
     Alice Munro is considered by many to be the best short-story writer in the English language. Her books sell about 30,000 copies a year. She is a writer other writers admire for her technical skills and the purity of her style. She is also known for the complex structure of her stories. A typical Alice Munro story might begin at a point that most writers would consider the end, then jump to a time ten years later, then back again. But what is most interesting about Alice Munro — who lives in a small town in southern Canada — is that her stories are about ordinary people: their secrets, their memories of acts of violence, their sexual longings.
     Think of what to write from what is around you, from what you know and care about.

Day 5

It doesn’t matter what kind of book you decide to write. There are no rules other than that the story has to be very, very interesting. It can be exciting, scary, fun, funny or sad — but it must not bore the reader.

Day 6

Analyze and learn. Take your favorite novel of the type that you want to write and read it again, as if it were a how-to manual for becoming a millionaire. Then read it again, breaking the book down into sections. Outline the action on large sheets of paper that you pin to your office wall.

Day 7

Although there are no rules about story ideas, I would offer you one caution: think small. One of the worst mistakes most beginning novelists make is thinking big, trying to come up with an end-of-the-world story, in the belief that big is better. That’s not true. Keep your story idea small and focused.
     Look into your creative soul and search for a little story but one that has real meaning to you. We are all part of the human family. If you create a story that has deep meaning to you, chances are it will have deep meaning for the rest of us.

Day 8

Imitation can lead to originality. Do short exercises imitating different styles. Try on a dozen voices until you find one that fits. Ape the sure hand of a master. But remember this: write from your own experience. Your experience is unique. As John Braine, author ofRoom at the Top, wrote, “If you’re to be heard out of all those thousands of voices, if your name is going to mean something out of all those thousands of names, it will only be because you’ve presented your own experience truthfully.”

Day 9

Don’t be afraid to write down scenes or sections that don’t lead anywhere. Don’t discard them if they aren’t leading anywhere. Follow the advice of Joan Didion. She pins them on a board with the idea of picking them up later. Quite early in her novel, A Book of Common Prayer, she says, she wrote about Charlotte Douglas going to the airport. It was a couple of pages of prose that she liked, but she couldn’t find a place for it. “I kept picking this part up and putting it in different places,” she writes, “but it kept stopping the narrative; it was wrong everywhere, but I was determined to use it.” She finally found a spot for it in the middle of the book. “Sometimes you can get away with things in the middle of the book.”

Day 10

Before we leave the problem of finding your story, let me debunk another cliché about novel writing: Write only about something you know.
     You’re heard that before. It’s nonsense. TomClancy had never been a submarine commander before he wrote The Hunt For Red October. And it’s a safe bet that Richard Bach had never been a seagull before he wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
     Instead of writing about something you know, you can write about something you love. It doesn’t matter what it is, just love it. For example, Arthur Golden,

author of Memoirs of a Geisha, had lived in Japan and was working for an English-language magazine in Tokyo when in 1982 he got the idea forMemoirs. In 1986, after earning a creative writing degree from Boston University, he began researching geishas and discovered “a subculture with its own strange rules.” It took him ten years and several drafts before he sold the book to Alfred A. Knopf for $250,000.

Day 11

Begin by writing about what you know, if not the novel itself, then something about the place or people in your novel. It’s a lot easier to get started on your book if you are writing about people, places, and things with which you have already grown familiar.


Day 12

Pick your characters first, as they are harder to pick than a story.
     When writing, the plot may or may not change, but the characters will develop and have a life of their own. As your characters develop, they’ll take on distinct personalities, and as with good friends, you’ll know in certain situations what they will or will not do.
     Mystery writer Oakley Hall says that a writer must “listen to the demands of his characters, who, as they begin to come to life, may insist upon a different fate than the givens seem to require.”


Day 13

Get a bunch of 5 by 7 cards and put each character’s name at the top. Next, think about the role each plays in your story, and what kind of person each is: age, education, place of birth, hot-headed, funny, fat, ugly. What are their quirks? Do they wash their hands 500 times a day? Do they hear voices? Are they kind to kids but love to torture cats? Put it down, put down so much that you finally come to know these characters intimately. Alfred Hitchcock would write down his scenes on index cards, one scene to a card. That way, as he said, by the time he was ready to shoot the film, he was already done.
     Some characters will be major ones, around whom the story will pivot; others will play bit parts, but these will be critical too, as every player must have a reason for being in the story. If they don’t have a reason for being in your novel, they’ll slow down the story, and slowness bores readers.


Day 14

Most novels are written to a formula, especially big best sellers. For example, John Baldwin, co-author of The Eleventh Plague: A Novel of Medical Terror, developed a simple formula that he used to structure his novel.
     His ten-step formula is:




The hero is an expert.




The villain is an expert.




You must watch all of the villainy over the shoulder of the villain.




The hero has a team of experts in various fields behind him.




Two or more on the team must fall in love.




Two or more on the team must die.




The villain must turn his attention from his initial goal to the team.




The villain and the hero must live to do battle again in the sequel.




All deaths must proceed from the individual to the group: i.e., never say that the bomb exploded and 15,000 people were killed. Start with “Jamie and Suzy were walking in the park with their grandmother when the earth opened up.”




If you get bogged down, just kill somebody.

     More about formula. When Ernest Hemminway started as a young reporter for the Kansas City Star, he was given a style sheet with four basic rules:



Use short sentences.



Use short first paragraphs.



Use vigorous English.



Be positive, never negative

Asked about these rules years later, he said, “Those were the best rules I ever learned in the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them. No one with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the things he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides by them.”



Day 15

Develop your characters and your plot together. You can’t do one well without the other. Your characters are not wooden people who just dropped magically out of the sky. They are critical elements of the drama you are creating. They must do something logical or illogical (which is what plot is all about) that adds to your story, and moves it to its ultimate climax. Never, never separate characters from plot.


Day 16

The reader has to believe that your characters exist or could exist — and they need to be distinct...

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